Educating children to move well will have lasting benefits for all
Here's a statistic that should shock you: nine out of every 10 Irish teenagers lack the basic movement skills needed for sport and exercise. We are not talking here about advanced skills like soloing a football or dribbling or balancing a sliotar. We are talking about skills such as running, hopping, weaving, kicking a ball, or catching it. We are talking about skills which most children should have mastered by the age of six.
These are typically referred to as fundamental movement skills, and they are the building blocks which support the ability of children to co-ordinate their movement. The window of opportunity for children to learn these skills is typically viewed as being up to the age of eight. After that, children and teenagers, find it more difficult to develop them.
It is generally accepted that Irish people are on track to become the most obese in Europe by 2030 and that the best way of altering course to prevent this from actually happening is through exercise.
It's a simple equation: exercise more and you are less likely to gain weight. This does not mean just taking part in organised sport because, as we know, this is not to everybody's liking. But you don't have to like sport to enjoy physical activity. We have an unfortunate - and unhelpful - tendency in this country to link the two and that's a link which needs to be broken.
There are many reasons why an individual might have an aversion to organised sport, and therefore to exercise, and the blame can often lie with sporting organisations which might have struggled with the concept of cradling and nurturing young children into mass participation. All it takes is one bad experience as a child with a coach or a coaching system - for instance one which places an emphasis on winning at an early age - to turn that child off organised sport, possibly forever. It is critically important that a child is part of a system which is fair; children react negatively to unfairness.
There has also of course been a huge failing on the part of the State in nurturing levels of physical activity through the country's education system. The true scale of this failing should never be underestimated. There are PE teachers all over the country tearing their hair out, fighting against a system which seems to put more obstacles than resources in their path.
Instead of being seen by the State as outposts of physical activity, primary and secondary schools should be at the centre of the fight against the obesity crisis and all the problems and illnesses it is bringing. The benefit of doing this is that by having a proper programme of physical activity - and, naturally, education around that programme - available in schools means that it is accessible to all children. By abdicating responsibility and leaving it to the various sporting organisations then you are not reaching out to all children, only those who attend at a local sports club.
Which brings us back to the development of fundamental movement skills, which does not happen by chance but rather through intervention and instruction. In other words, if properly designed and tested programmes are taught from the word go in schools as part of a national strategy, then the shocking figure quoted at the beginning of this article can be quickly addressed.
Last week, DCU revealed it is undertaking a new ground-breaking study to tackle this problem. Entitled 'Moving Well, Being Well', the project will be spearheaded by the university's Insight Centre for Data Analytics, and researchers will be teaming up with the GAA as part of the project.
"It's a potential catastrophe for public health because the inability to perform fundamental movement skills leads to an aversion to sports and exercise later in life," said Dr Johann Issartel of DCU's School of Health and Performance, one of the lead researchers. "It's a time bomb for the healthcare system."
Think about the crisis which is unfolding in these terms: As you move through your teenage years and into adulthood, what greater turn-off is there to taking part in organised sport or to even enjoying moderate levels of physical exercise than not being adept at basic skills? As the team behind 'Moving Well, Being Well' point out, if you cannot move well then you will move less. It is a vicious circle.
The idea, then, behind the project is to break this vicious circle. "So far interventions aimed at reducing obesity are not working," said Dr Issartel. "We need to try something novel based on scientific evidence and common sense. To caricature, it seems logical that someone not capable of doing something will only engage in this type of activity, if they even do so, for a short period of time. People tend to drop out of any tasks they are not capable of performing well.
"In other words, in a really short period of time, anyone 'failing' to move well will cease participation with the risk to also having low self-esteem and a reduction of their self-confidence. This perceived low self-competency can lead to a lifetime of inactivity."
Over the next three months, 3,000 primary school children will be tested and arising from that, researchers will create a programme to enhance basic movement skills for those children. This programme will be delivered from September in schools by DCU and Games Promotion Officers from the GAA. The children will be re-tested and the hope is that a programme with lasting benefits for the children, and for society, can then be rolled out and that in time teachers will also be trained to deliver it.
It is telling that the GAA is involved too. Another great enemy of the fight against obesity is abnormally high drop-out rates from sport during teenage and early adolescence years and the Association has been engaged in a number of projects aimed at tackling this problem.
The testing over the coming months will offer a snapshot of where our children are in terms of their basic skills and given that this study is one of the largest of its kind ever undertaken, its potential impact will be far-reaching.
We still have it within our power as a society to change course - after all, today's six-year-old will still be a teenager in 2030.
Sunday Indo Sport